Commuting and the French Paradox

I'm listening to Chris Kresser on a Balanced Bites podcast, and they're discussing stress and its effect on nutrition. There are a lot of angles that topic could take, but they've focussed on how fight-or-flight and rest-and-digest are mutually exclusive modes of being, and what that means for family dinner.

First, a primer on poop. When you eat, your food bolus meets your stomach acid and becomes chyme which passes into your small intestine where enzymes break down fats and proteins. Only fibre moves on to the lower intestine, where it is digested by friendly flora and liquids are drawn out. Undigestible fibre and dead gut bacteria make up the bulk of your poop. If the pH of your stomach and thus chyme is incorrect, it will not properly trigger the release of digestive and pancreatic enzymes, and you won't get full value from your food. If your flora are out of whack, they will steal nutrients meant for you and cause fermentation in your gut (this is what happens to ingested lactose in lactose intolerant folk, who do not have the enzyme needed to digest it further upstream, and why they experience bloating from milk). If your gut is damaged, or paralysed by a reactivity to gluten or something else, or you're stressed, peristolsis will slow down to such an extent that too much liquid will be drawn from the stool and constipation and possible toxicity will result.

With that out of the way, let's continue to the experts, shall we?

BB: "a stressful situation... causing that low stomach acid... would that be essentially the body's own response to the fight or flight mode? ... Lots of people are in this moderate, chronic level of fight-or-flight, like a four out of ten, all the time."

CK "We only have two nervous system states; it's sympathetic and parasympathetic, and only one can be activated [at a time]. So if you're in a chronic state of low-level stress, you're in a chronic sympathetic arousal state, and that means that your body will be prioritising only what you need for immediate survival. Which is, basically, marshalling the resources you need to fight or flee... stomach acid production and peristalsis and digestion generally aren't necessary when you're running away from a lion... If you're sitting in traffic, your life's not really in danger but your body doesn't know that and it reacts in the same way."

Which is a nice summary of the background, but not revolutionary. What I heard here first was this:
BB "If you come home and just reheat something and within two minutes you're eating, you may not even have had time to, like, chill out. I think that the process of coming home and cooking and then sitting down to eat a meal, and hopefully with someone else to slow that down even further - even farther upstream [than] chewing - is ... your whole food hygiene. I don't mean that in a cleanliness way, but your food rituals and how you approach eating. So many people are eating on the go, and it's like, step one: sit down."

What if this insistence on quick food as a solution to the evening witching hour is counterproductive?

A common criticism of real food eating of any stripe is that it takes time. People with long commutes or stressful jobs or little kids whining underfoot (who are probably either overtired, undernourished or lacking in attention and could be well served with a nap 2 hours ago and being put to work helping on dinner, but that's my parenting philosophy leaking through) say that it's just too hard to "do" real food in the evening. There's planning involved in having bone broth in the fridge all (or at least most!) of the time, fresh ingredients don't stay fresh for long, and there's no getting around the prep and clean up time required for a meal of identifiable ingredients, whether that's in the hour directly preceding the meal, or some time well in advance whereafter the slow cooker or dutch oven takes over. Yet maintaining a hectic lifestyle and demanding that meals fit in is, to me, putting the cart before the horse.

To me this displays a misunderstanding of food's place in our lives. It expects that we can "tank up" our bodies like we do our cars. Michael Pollan has a rule that you don't feed your body at the same place you feed your car, and I'd extend that to the way of feeding; in German, the word for food is Lebensmittel - Leben means life, and a mittel is a means. Food is the means by which we sustain life. Is that not worth time?

It interests me that this attitude may be borne out by our bodies in a very physical way: drive-through eating leads to drive-through nutrients. A distracted mental state when fork is in hand may lead to an equally lax digestive response. It's speculative but not impossible that the toxicity of chronic constipation that such a situation often causes leads to binge-driven eating in an attempt to self-medicate but which has the real effect of exacerbating the problem.

The so-called French Paradox - that the French eat all the things the US food police tell us will kill you and yet live better than Americans - can be explained in part by food rules about portion size, continued use of traditional cuisine, the sacredness of the meal time, and the attitude towards food as joyous. None of these factors are at play in the average North American home between 5:30 and 8pm, Monday to Friday.

Without sounding too woo-woo, conscious eating may be a prerequisite to a healthy body. That means SOLE food selection, unresentfully allowing time for meal preparation immediately before the meal (even if that's just assembling a salad dressing and tossing it through a prepared salad with leftover chicken), saying grace if that's a tradition in your home, visiting over the meal and chewing the food, and involving all members of the family in some way in the rituals of the table. Even clean-up can be seen as a meditative time - and no one ever said it had to be done before the littles were abed!

Washing the Dishes

 When we on simple rations sup
How easy is the washing up!
But heavy feeding complicates
The task by soiling many plates.

And though I grant that I have prayed
That we might find a serving-maid,
I'd scullion all my days I think,
To see Her smile across the sink!

I wash, she wipes. In water hot
I souse each pan and dish and pot;
While Taffy mutters, purrs, and begs,
And rubs himself against my legs.

The man who never in his life
Has washed the dishes with his wife
Or polished up the silver plate-
He still is largely celibate.

One warning: there is certain ware
That must be handled with all care:
The Lord Himself will give you up
If you should drop a willow cup!

                  -Christopher Morley

What say you? Is thinking of food as the "means of life" a switch you could see making a difference in your kitchen? Does such an attitude explain the "French Paradox"? Have you ever heard of dishwashing cementing domestic relationships?


  1. I haven't read this post yet, but you're PREGNANT!!??!!!
    I know you longed for another child. I so hope this will be a fabulous experience for you and that everything goes well.

    1. I am, Janet. Thanks! Good to see you back :)